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In Kentucky’s 'Pandemic Economy', It's Lights Out For Nightlife

Kentucky nightlife has gone dark to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Restaurants and bars are closed for the next two weeks for everything except takeout and drive-thru options following an unprecedented emergency order from Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.

“It is a mandate. It is a legally enforceable order,” Beshear said Monday evening. “We’ll have folks that will be there to enforce it, but folks don’t make us. This is what we have to do going forward to protect each other.”

Servers are out of jobs. Businesses will struggle to meet payroll and uncertainty reigns for hundreds of thousands of workers across Kentucky while the coronavirus pandemic rolls through like an imperceptible hurricane across the commonwealth, testing the mettle of communities.

Restaurants feed people and the economy of the Commonwealth

Outside of government and healthcare, restaurants are the top private employer in the state, said Stacy Roof, Kentucky Restaurant Association president. There are about 7,700 bars and restaurants in Kentucky with an annual economic impact of more about $9 billion, Roof said.

All told, eating and drinking establishments employ more than 200,000 people, she said.

People like Heather Heston, a server at a Cheesecake Factory restaurant.

“Effective today I don’t have a job,” she said Monday. “Being a server, we earn an income daily so this is putting myself and all my coworkers and actually everyone in my industry in financial distress.”

Beshear admonished people for crowding into bars and clubs over the weekend and threatened the state with closures on Sunday. On Monday, he followed through. He said the decision weighed heavily on him, and he recognized his order would leave people unemployed.

“We are asking so many people to make sacrifices,” Beshear said in a statement. “It is not lost on me that most of these are small businesses. We are going to do everything we can to be there for you. We realize the impact this will have and we will be there for you.”

Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development is expanding unemployment benefits to help workers who take a financial hit from the governor’s order. Under the new terms, it will cover benefits for anyone who has lost a job or experienced medical quarantine because of COVID-19, said Josh Benton, deputy secretary of education and workforce development cabinet.

Meanwhile, employers are upset that the governor issued the order without having a plan in place for businesses.  Ed Kupper, the owner of the bar Shenanigans in the Highlands, said he’d already spent $20,000 for a St. Patrick’s Day Party that has since been canceled.

“Well, I don’t know how we are going to make our payments. I still have to make payroll, I still have to care for somebody,” Kupper said. “He hasn’t told us how he is going to help us, he hasn’t told us about any incentive package we’re going to get or anything he is going to do for us. He just wants to shut the city down.”

Even as late as Monday afternoon customers were still crowding into neighborhood restaurants and bars in Louisville, hours before the order went into effect. Shenanigans was nearly two-thirds full, while almost a full lineup of diners sat in the bar in Old Louisville Tavern.

“When I did find out that restaurants were closing I did call to see when they were closing so I could come one more time,” said David Deacon, a local and regular at the tavern.

A tavern bartender said there was way more traffic than they are used to for early afternoon on a Monday. “People are coming out — I’m surprised,” the bartender said as she rushed to deliver food.

Why? To slow the spread of the virus.

Why purposely stall such a big piece of the economy to halt the spread of a virus that causes little to no symptoms for 80% of those infected?

The short answer is to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The U.S. is benefiting from the experience of other countries, especially Italy, where the virus has overwhelmed the health care system, said Dr. Mary Rademaker, executive medical director for Norton Immediate Care Center.

The problem is that while someone may feel healthy, they can still expose someone who could fall ill, or die, as a result of that exposure, she said.

Social distancing and isolation are the only effective measures right now.

“It’s the only thing that’s been proven to contain the virus,” Rademaker said.

As bars close and restaurants cut back on non-essential staff, the implications of the governor’s order will multiply, according to University of Louisville Business Professor Nat Irvin. Job losses will have ripple effects on child and senior care, students and contractors working in the gig economy.

“When you are talking about restaurants and bars you are talking about a lot of people in this community that are not in that top one or two or 10%,” Irvin said. “But they keep the city going.”

The state's restaurants encompass everything from KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — owned locally by Yum Brands — to microbreweries, falafel shops and diners. From massive corporations to mom and pop restaurants, servers, hosts and dishwashers.

Louisville and Southern Indiana alone has nearly 1,400 restaurants, said Stacey Yates of Louisville Tourism.

A lot of the downtown restaurants depend on convention business and tourism, which has already seen an estimated economic loss of nearly $58 million due to canceled conferences, Yates said. And those tourists spend about 60% of their trip dollars on dining, she said.

The pandemic has laid bare the consequences of income inequality, Irvin said. U.S. median wages have not increased for the average worker since the 1970’s and that’s affected the resiliency of low-wage employees during times of hardship, he said.

"We've had over this period of time this a real concern about what would happen if we faced a moment like this," Irvin said.  "We now can say we have a 'pandemic economy,' which is unprecedented."

One concrete way to help bolster the restaurant industry is simple: Do takeout. Another innovative method, would be to visit Keeplouisvillerestaurantsstrong.com where Salon.com reporter and Louisvillian Ashlie Stevens is collecting a list of restaurants where you can buy gift cards to use when restaurants open back up.

“It’s a way for Louisville restaurants who are struggling right now with less foot traffic than normal to have a source of income,” Stevens said.

Jared Bennett, Kyeland Jackson and Jess Clark contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Nat Irvin is a member of the Louisville Public Media Board of Directors

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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